The Presence of Absence


After living in Washington for decades, I’ve discovered that the very best time to visit the museums is the day before Thanksgiving. Residents are traveling, or else they’re at home cooking, and few visitors flock to DC for this holiday. So I waited until last Wednesday to view the work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu at the Freer/Sackler Museum of Asian Art and was almost alone wandering the dark galleries. The exhibition, Sōtatsu: Making Waves, features some of the most important pieces by this relatively unknown but hugely influential Japanese painter of the late 16th and early 17th century. Though there were many pieces on paper (scrolls, poem cards, fans), the most remarkable were his large screens. I was struck by how spare the imagery is, yet it has so much impact. The paintings are restrained and disciplined, the iconography precise, but the emotional power is intense. This is something I’ve been thinking about in my own work—how to elicit feeling and memory without being obvious. I’ve discovered that the power of an image, whether a painting or a photograph, has a lot to do with what is left out. I call this the “presence of absence.” It’s a tricky component, but it’s as important as framing, composition, and lighting. As a photographer, leaving things out is particularly challenging, since the assumption of using a camera is that you are capturing “reality.” But I work with my prints to shape the reality, isolating elements and emphasizing color, shadow, or line. I also look for subjects that inspire me, like the imprint of these leaves on a sidewalk that evokes the passing of time.